Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleging that Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras accepted a gift from the Montana Family Foundation by living rent-free in a house in the shadow of the state Capitol.

Juras did not respond directly to a request for comment. A spokesperson from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said Tuesday the complaint did not have merit but declined to address specific allegations or provide relevant records.

“The lieutenant governor will respond to the Montana Democratic Party’s baseless, scurrilous, partisan complaint in accordance with COPP procedures, not through a blog or the press,” said spokesperson Brooke Stroyke in an email.

The Montana Family Foundation was also contacted by the Daily Montanan but did not respond to a request for comment.

The house, one block north of the Capitol, is owned by the conservative Montana Family Foundation, but it was donated by the Gianforte Family Foundation, just a month before Republican Gianforte took office.

Citing tax records, the complaint alleges Juras has been living at the house without a lease and rent-free, which would appear to violate the state’s Code of Ethics for employees. The Code of Ethics prohibits elected leaders from “accepting a gift of substantial value or a substantial economic benefit as tantamount to a gift.”

The complaint was filed on Friday. The Commissioner’s Office has the discretion to dismiss a complaint or not pursue it and typically takes as long as 30 days to determine whether to pursue a complaint based on a preliminary informal investigation.

However, the Commissioner’s Office is in transition. Current Commissioner Jeff Mangan’s term concludes at the end of this month. Statutorily, the commissioner can only serve one six-year term, and Mangan’s full term is complete.

The Montana Senate must confirm the next Commissioner of Political Practices, who will be chosen by Gov. Gianforte among candidates nominated by a committee. That confirmation process is not expected to convene until the 2023 legislative session begins on Jan. 2.

The process for soliciting applications for the position has already begun.

The Commissioner’s Office confirmed on Monday that it was likely impossible for Mangan, appointed by Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock, to gather enough information by the end of the year to make a decision. That means the next commissioner, nominated by Gianforte and approved by the Republican majority in the state Senate, will choose the person who will ultimately decide the case involving Juras and the Montana Democrats.

The complaint alleges that Montana Family Foundation President and Chief Executive Jeff Laszloffy, a former legislator himself, lobbied for 29 pieces of legislation during the 2021 session. Fifteen of those bills were successful, and all 15 were signed by Gianforte.

The IRS 990 forms filed by the Montana Family Foundation show no rental income for the property in 2020, but the property wasn’t transferred to the conservative foundation until Dec. 9, 2020. The quit-claim deed for the property was signed by now Montana First Lady Susan Gianforte, and that transferred ownership to the Family Foundation.

The Montana Democrats say the IRS 990 form for the Montana Family Foundation for 2021, which may show rental income, was not available.

The Democrats are requesting that the Commissioner’s Office open a file to determine what kind of arrangement was made and if Juras paid the Montana Family Foundation and whether “those payments reflect the market-rate price associated with renting a single-family home a block from the Montana Capitol Building.”

The Democrats, using the online real estate site Zillow, estimate the median rent in Helena for all properties at $1,850 per month.

“A single-family home located in a desirable neighborhood … will potentially cost more,” said the complaint, filed by Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan.